Next To Normal's story concerns a mother (Jodie Langel) who struggles with bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. A traumatic loss years earlier is the seeming catalyst for her condition. Now she is tormented by an image of the past she cannot let go. She struggles in search of mental health and happiness, but therapy and medication have no lasting effect. A husband who loves her dearly (Mark Sanders) and a daughter (Sarah Amengual) from whom she seems disconnected are victims of her struggle as well. For years she vacillates between fragile and volatile, and the uncertainty of each day wears on them all.
Jodie Langel's portrayal of Diana is an acting triumph of beauty and pain. One of the most memorable and character defining moments in the show is when Diana asks, "what if the sickness isn't in my brain or my blood, but in my soul?". Sarah Amengual turns in a strong performance as her attention-starved teenage daughter Natalie. She is so accustomed to the turbulent life that revolves around her mother, that she desperately craves a life that is "next to normal." Her budding relationship with newfound boyfriend Henry (Ben Liebert) provides some of the few moments of gentle humor in the show.
Though there are no memorable melodies or tunes the audience will leave the theatre humming, the level of musicianship displayed by every member of the cast is worthy of praise. They demonstrate a real understanding of sharing their musical space. As vocal melodies and themes overlap and weave together, they are mindful of dynamic shaping, so that the most important line is always the one that is heard. Such contentious ensemble singing is rare, and both the ensemble and music director Eric Alsford deserve credit for performing a difficult score so well.
Next To Normal is not standard musical theatre fare. The dark and disturbing nature of the storyline rules this show out as an appropriate choice for children, teens or even a date. The draining quest for sound mental health and emotional stability remains aching unfulfilled. It seems to intimidate rather than illuminate the audience by submerging them in the world of a family at risk. As oppressive as this may be, it succeeds powerfully in wringing empathy from the audience, effectively creating a memorable if disturbing theatrical experience.
Next To Normal will be appearing through February 12, 2012, at the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse is the nonprofit resident theatre company and managing agent of the historic Miracle Theatre on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse, which has brought home 66 regional Carbonell Awards for artistic excellence, is a Florida Presenting Cultural Organization and one of 22 major cultural institutions in Miami-Dade County. In addition to its Mainstage season, Actors' Playhouse offers a year-round season of Musical Theatre for Young Audiences, a National Children's Theatre Festival, a Theatre Conservatory and Summer Camp Program, as well as educational arts outreach programs for underserved youth, and has initiated a "Young Talent Big Dreams" contest for children in partnership with The Children's Trust. Actors' Playhouse is located at 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Florida. Performances are usually Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 PM, and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 PM. Information and tickets may be obtained by contacting the theater at their box office at 305-444-9293, or online at www.actorsplayhouse.org.
*Designates a member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
Photo: Alberto Romeu